Modern systems and applications, particularly within the cloud, rely heavily on access and privileges to ensure that the correct users and systems have the access they require. However, users change roles over time, while organizations add and remove systems and components. As a result, these access controls can easily become stale or unsuitable.
Auditing the access and privileges granted to users can offer a variety of security benefits. But given a virtually endless list of responsibilities, it’s not necessarily something we think about regularly. If we’ve been fortunate enough to avoid significant incidents or changes in the organization, it becomes especially challenging to recognize the benefits of regular audits.
In this article, we’ll explore five unexpected insights that an access management audit may provide. Understanding these benefits just might give us all the push we’ve needed to pencil regular audits into our calendars.
1. You’re Not Applying the Principle of Least Privilege
The principle of least privilege (PoLP) tries to define the minimum amount of access required for users to perform their tasks within a system. When our teams apply PoLP consistently, it helps reduce our systems’ attack surface and limit the scope of compromised accounts.
It’s relatively easy to apply PoLP when creating users or roles because we have a thorough understanding of what they require to perform their functions effectively. However, reviewing existing user permissions to ensure that they still align with users and roles becomes increasingly challenging.
Through regular, in-depth audits of users and their access privileges, we can truly enforce the principle of least privilege across the organization. These efforts reduce any future impacts that compromised accounts may have.
2. Access Requirements May Have Shifted
Many users change roles at some point. Moreover, even the same roles will often shift and evolve. These long-standing roles and accounts may continually amass permissions as new access requirements appear and role modifications occur.
Quite often, new roles begin with limited access based on their limited initial functions. Our teams are generally responsive insofar as adding new permissions when these roles develop or users move through the organization. However, they often may not think to review or remove the stale or outdated permissions.
Unfortunately, this oversight prevents us from adequately applying the principle of least privilege. Plus, the more permissions an account collects, the greater the potential impact on system integrity if that account should become compromised.
Auditing roles regularly prevents this sort of access creep from snowballing beyond a team’s ability to adequately address it. It also reinforces the principle of least privilege among team members, who receive more consistent feedback about their access management practices.
3. Privileged Machines and Integration Access
In most circumstances, it’s relatively straightforward to keep track of which user accounts need access to systems. We can typically determine a user’s necessary permissions based on their role within the organization and their job-related tasks.
However, maintaining awareness of systems is a different task entirely. Monitoring system access and privileges requires acute attention to the relatively invisible functions that systems regularly perform. Furthermore, interconnectivity between systems adds levels of complexity because a workflow typically passes through several integration layers. As a result, it takes far more effort to determine the required levels of access for the systems involved.
Our teams build these automations between systems, grant access, and test various use cases for integrations. The often inevitable result is the slow accumulation of system permissions that are not discarded when they become obsolete. Finally, the growing use of microservices has only compounded this type of permission drift, as increasing numbers of systems require a suite of permissions to connect.
In such cases, the benefits of regular audits are clear. They help guide us through reviewing and evaluating the necessity of various system privileges and credentials. We can then use this information to adjust or revoke permissions, reducing the risk of compromised systems being able to access greater amounts of proprietary information.
4. Opportunities for Separation of Duties
Separation of duty (SoD) is the principle that no user should have enough privileges to single-handedly misuse a system. In practice, this generally means ensuring that we don’t grant one user the ability to both create and approve system changes.
In-depth access audits enable us to examine how users and systems use their privileges. These audits can provide valuable insight into how well our organization applies the SoD principle.
In contrast to the previous examples, we can’t simply use this type of information to direct a quick issue resolution by modifying privileges. Unsurprisingly, removing privileges without adequately understanding how users operate within systems can cause severe operational problems.
However, using the audit to examine our organization’s roles and processes helps establish that we have defined them to protect our organization from such misuse. It also helps redesign roles and processes to ensure that your organization aligns with SoD.
5. How Privileges Are Used (Or Not Used)
As we add permissions to roles or as processes change, it can be challenging to determine whether users are using their assigned privileges. While many cloud-based providers report on permissions used, these reports tend to overlook many systems and processes.
Advanced auditing tools like strongDM provide additional logging against every action that privileged users perform across virtually every system — cloud or otherwise. Enabling this in-depth logging provides granular behavior patterns.
These detailed reports greatly simplify the processes of reviewing privilege assignments and visualizing user behavior. They empower us to take a fine-grained look at how users use their privileges and to discuss required access with privileged users. All of this ensures that we don’t over-provision access.
System access privileges are the core tool we use to protect our organization from bad actors. However, without consistent, in-depth audits, privileges can accumulate and drift away from our original intentions.
While perhaps we don’t think of existing access privileges as regularly as we should, the insights and benefits discussed here should remind us to take this extra step to improve our security. These regular audits help ensure the entire organization aligns with the principles of least privilege and separation of duties while remaining current with changes.
Using third-party tools like strongDM helps provide the fine-grained logging information and visualizations to understand how users and systems use their access.
Sign up for a demo to learn more about auditing access and how strongDM can simplify authentication and access across your organization.
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